Good for What Ales Us

Our columnist sips her way through Atlanta’s diverse beer culture
The Porter Beer Bar
For many people, myself included, beer is an acquired taste. Compared with wine, whose familiar fruitiness caresses the palate, beer brings bitterness to the forefront. As a child in Paris, I was occasionally given beer diluted with carbonated lemonade while the adults around me drank thin Alsatian drafts I thought were just awful. Known in England as shandy, in Spain as clara, and in Germany as radler, beer cut with citrus-flavored soda is something I still love. Snakebite is a strong variation made of hard cider and beer in equal proportions that most respectable bars (including Manuel’s Tavern in Poncey-Highland) will pour into a tall pint glass for me.
It wasn’t until I went to Belgium, where wonderful little joints offered thick farm ales with tall foamy heads, some of them fermented with sour cherries or apples, that I emerged as a somewhat serious beer drinker. I regressed in Munich, where I lived in a minuscule loft across from a foul-smelling brewery and witnessed the horrors of Oktoberfest. When I moved to the United States, I observed something uniquely American and disturbing: People drank beer out of a bottle, a can, or a plastic cup. Thirty years later, I still need a glass, even if I am at the beach or a party and am dying for a cold one.

Like wine, the tastes and aromas of beer benefit enormously from being poured into the proper tall or bulbous glass. Local restaurants are doing better in that respect. The Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points orders glassware from at least a hundred breweries. The young owners, Nick and Molly Rutherford, are experts at matching beer and food. Their menu offers specific beer suggestions for specials. “I would never eat pâté or rillettes with wine,” Nick Rutherford told me, while his wife chimed in that hoppy beers tame the richness of charcuterie.

Unlike wine, which tends toward acidity, beer doesn’t polarize the palate and goes well with pretty much every food you can think of, especially salty, greasy, or spicy items. Who’d drink wine with curry or a plate of onion rings? Beer has more in common with food (it is often called liquid bread) than does wine, and it supports a broad range of tastes.

Take cheese, for example. The delicate crystals within an artisanal cheddar, the fusty mold aroma of a traditional blue, and many other sexy details about cheese are easiest to identify with a farm ale or an imperial stout on the side. Mike Gallagher started pairing beer and cheese at the original Decatur location of the Brick Store Pub in the 1990s. His more recent Leon’s Full Service around the corner further explores those combinations with cheese tastings and intriguing flights every Monday. The opportunity to sample La Cana Albariño (a white wine from Spain) and De Dolle Brouwers Arabier (a strong Belgian pale ale) side by side taught me a lot about acidity versus carbonation and their relation to food.

When classically trained Julia LeRoy became the chef at the Bookhouse Pub, she had to rethink her philosophy and presume that people were going to drink beer with their meals. She started making her sauces and braised dishes with beer instead of wine. The most exciting part of the job, she told me, has been developing desserts that involve beers, such as her Car Bomb Float (Left Hand milk stout poured over Baileys ice cream with Jameson syrup) and a chocolate cake with lambic framboise ice cream.

Ryan Stewart, the startlingly talented opening chef at the Glenwood in East Atlanta, recently reemerged at the new Mac McGee, an independent Irish pub on the Decatur Square. Like other culinarians of his generation, he can go back and forth between gigs at high-end restaurants (including Eno in Midtown) and more casual work in gastropubs without losing his credibility. Research into Irish cooking led him to offer, among other finely honed dishes, a foraged wild herb salad with borage that seems to beg for a Smithwick’s (Ireland’s oldest ale) on tap.

Likewise, the Royal Peasant, an idyllic English pub in Athens, is much more than a place to go for a swift pint. The chef, Luke Harvey, works by himself in a tiny kitchen, producing London-caliber beer- battered fish and chips, bubble and squeak (browned vegetables with ham) with fried eggs, and house chips with garlic oil. I consider his cooking worth the trip to a town where beer culture is paramount and the Terrapin Beer Company, home to my favorite rye pale ale, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday.

I don’t have much to say about the compatibility of beer with antelope, alligator, and elk, all of which have been served at the Westside location of 5 Seasons Brewing Company. But I know that the founders of the original Prado location, Dennis Lange and David Larkworthy (who now operate different branches of the restaurant), are also thoroughly committed to supporting local farmers and often showcase their ingredients in ambitious, multicourse beer dinners.

For a fascinatingly different beer and food experience, I like to hang out at Shoya, the Japanese izakaya next to BrandsMart USA in Doraville. Grilled smelts, miso cod, chicken cartilage yakitori, pork belly, and pan-fried noodles are perfect foils for Sapporo on tap, which comes in exquisite hand-thrown pitchers and ceramic mugs, where it remains cold and takes on a richer than usual color.

Nowadays, upscale restaurants such as Bistro Niko and Holeman and Finch Public House think as carefully about the beers they offer as they do about their wines or their cocktails. And whether you are chasing the ultimate cask or just want to polish off a plate of decent sausages with a refreshing brew, you can be proud of being a beer drinker and a gourmet.

Vital Statistics

5 Seasons Brewing Company
5600 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs
1000 Marietta Street
3655 Old Milton Parkway, Alpharetta

The Bookhouse Pub

736 Ponce de Leon Avenue

Brick Store Pub

125 East Court Square, Decatur

Leon’s Full Service

131 East Ponce de Leon Avenue, Decatur

Mac McGee

111 Sycamore Street, Decatur

Manuel’s Tavern

602 North Highland Avenue

The Porter Beer Bar

1156 Euclid Avenue

The Royal Peasant

1675 Lumpkin Street, Athens

Shoya Izakaya

6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville

Terrapin Beer Company

265 Newton Bridge Road, Athens

Photograph by Josh Meister